Blog : Marketing

If the New York Times Branded Content Solution is So Awful, Why Do We Keep Buying It?

If the New York Times Branded Content Solution is So Awful, Why Do We Keep Buying It?

Last quarter I ran a branded content campaign with the New York Times (Wikipedia: Branded Content) that included a paid post and display banners across the entirety of the nytimes.com website. To be blunt, I didn’t think it was worth it. But why not and, more importantly, why did my client disagree?

The design? Not so great.

The New York Times Paid Post is a lackluster user experience at best. When compared to Mashable’s Immersive BrandSpeak it’s almost embarrassing. Seriously, compare this Paid Post from the New York Times to this BrandSpeak from Mashable (I wasn’t involved in either of these campaigns). We know the Times can do better, because their editorial team creates gorgeous content for the magazine. They started strong with their first campaign for Netflix (which was ranked in the Times top 1,000 articles last year), but it’s pretty much been downhill from there.

No commenting.

This seems to be a common theme across nearly all branded content providers. Mashable doesn’t appear to offer commenting on their BrandSpeak posts but Ars Technica and Alister & Paine both offer commenting. Why does it matter? Commenting is a valuable space for communities to engage around a story. We want to see people thoughtfully engaging in the story, but the concerns are valid for the Times and others who turn off commenting for branded content. What if half of the comments are people complaining about how the Times sold out, or the end of journalistic integrity? That’s not good for anyone. Some clients don’t even want comments sections turned on (I’m looking at you, Big Pharma) but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be an option.

It’s kinda pricey.

In an AdAge article from last year, DELL admitted to paying “six-figures” for their activation with the New York Times. For obvious reasons, I’m not at liberty to say exactly how much my client paid for their campaign but I can confirm the ambiguously vague “six-figure” price tag quoted by AdAge is accurate.

Compare that to Mashable, Ars Technica, Alister & Paine’s Direct Publishing, The Atlantic, or nearly any other branded content solution out there and it’s exponentially more expensive. That, perhaps, is part of it’s charm. Like a Ferrari. But this is more like if Ferrari made a four-cylinder car that was kind of ugly and still charged you six-figures for it. It just doesn’t make sense, but some sucker will still buy it because it has a Ferrari emblem on the grille.

Why we keep going back.

Are advertisers gluttons for punishment? Maybe. Ok, yes, definitely. But even that doesn’t explain why we keep going back to a product that costs way more than the competition, looks pretty horrible, and has fairly poor performance. So, why do our clients keep asking us to buy it?

Because, dummy, it’s the New York Times.

Brands see it as a shortcut to get under the masthead of one of the most prestigious journals of all time, and they’re right. That’s why they’re going to continue to pay a premium for the foreseeable future, and it’s also why there’s no incentive for the Times to make their product look–or perform–better than the competition.

PR Advice for Startups from DigiDay, Elite Daily, and Me.

PR Advice for Startups from DigiDay, Elite Daily, and Me.

Last night I was on a panel of experts talking to Silicon Alley entrepreneurs about how startups can cut through the noise and reach their target audience.

The other panelists included Luis A. Navia of Elite Daily, Aaron Gottlieb of DigiDay, Yannis Moati of HotelsByDay, and João-Pierre S. Ruth of Xconomy.

Who Are These “Experts”?

I’m going to run through this fast, so I can get to to what you’re really here for: PR tips for your startup.

Luis leads Innovation and Culture at Elite Daily, a Gen Y website with more than 25 million monthly unique visitors. Aaron runs audience development for DigiDay, an industry leader on digital marketing and advertising. Yannis is the founder and CEO of HotelsByDay which, as it’s name implies, provides day-stays for weary travelers. One thing Yannis and I both have in common is that we founded (or co-founded, in his case) companies that specialize in exotic or adrenaline travel. I hope he got more money for his company than I did for mine! The panel was also joined by, João-Pierre S. Ruth, who is the New York editor of Xconomy, a national local-first business blog dedicated to startups and technology.

The panel was moderated by Wazi, a Venture Capitalist and Boston Consulting Group alumni who is currently the Director of Entrepreneurship at Mercy College. And, of course, there was me.

Luis A. Navia

Luis A. Navia

Elite Daily

Aaron Gottlieb

DigiDay

Yannis Moati

HotelsByDay

João-Pierre S. Ruth

Xconomy

We didn’t agree on everything, but here’s what we did agree on:

Focus on Who You Are First

One of the things that stuck with me the most–even though I’ve been there several times already myself with my own startups–is to focus on your product first. Elite Daily made a pact not to attend a single trade show or networking event for the first three years. By the time year three came around, they sold their company to the Daily Mail for $50 million. Why? Because they focused on their product first.

I’d take this advice a step further, by writing down who you are and fleshing out a “brand filter”. A style guide would be great, but at bare minimum your startup needs to decide on it’s voice and tone. Figure out who you’re going to be, and write it on paper so you can reference it when you start trying to be everything to everyone (all entrepreneurs are guilty of it while they’re chasing the black). It’s not until you truly know who you are that you’re ready to engage the media or the public. Nail that down first, everything else comes later.

Personalize Your Pitch

This one was unanimous from the media guys on the panel: standard press releases go straight into the trash. Press releases are an impersonal waste of time for everyone involved. If you’re going to bother pitching the media, take the time to do your due diligence. Learn more about the publication you’re pitching to make sure it’s even a right fit. Find the right editorial contact and see what they’ve worked on in the past. Compliment a recent piece of theirs and talk about their work before you pitch them on you or your client. Trust me, this small amount of personalization goes a long way. Speaking of which, if you haven’t bothered to take the time to find out what their name is don’t expect them to take the time to read your pitch, let alone write about it.

Stop Pitching Everyone

Startups can be a little desperate for press coverage, so much so that they’ll pitch anyone who will listen. That’s great, an entrepreneur should be his or her own greatest advocate, but when it’s time to pitch the media I advise startups to identify the five or ten journalists who have the power to change their lives with a single media hit.

Instead of sending the same press release to five-hundred journalists, craft five incredibly tailored pitches to the writers who could change your life overnight. Then keep pitching them. Stay respectful. Don’t spam them. Give them space. But stay persistent and always provide them value.

Embrace Pay-to-Play

Nearly everyone agreed, with the exception of a very nice person in the audience who worked for a boutique PR firm, that companies NEED to pay-to-play if they’re serious about their content game. And, let’s face it, if you’re not serious about your content-game then your not serious about marketing or communications.

Let me break it down this way: the second a company hires a PR pro to represent them, they are paying to play. They might not be paying a blogger for a sponsored post, but they’re paying someone.

As little as $3,200 could get your startup featured in Alister & Paine Magazine. Another $1,600 in native amplification could get that sponsored editorial in front of another 3.6 million people and drive over 2,400 clicks to your piece of content.

That’s only a $4,800 investment for millions of eyeballs.

The average startup pays exponentially more than that before they even see their first blog post that usually doesn’t have more than a few hundred readers. It’s just simple math: paying to play let’s you cut to the front of the line and puts you in front of your target audience immediately.

Is it as easy as I make it sound? No. But it’s not as difficult as most startups think it is. Agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments.

My Webinar with Taboola on Modernizing Public Relations

My Webinar with Taboola on Modernizing Public Relations

Last week Taboola (Business Insider: Billion-dollar unicorn Taboola has just raised more millions in funding, and now plans to conquer China) hosted a webinar with me around the topic of modernizing public relations.

Over 300 people registered, including executives from companies like Samsung, Ancestry.com, LiveNation, InStyle, HarperCollins, ASOS and Lending Tree to hear about how the world of corporate communications is changing and what they can do to leverage paid media in their digital communications strategies.

I’ll be summarizing the webinar later next week for those who weren’t able to join. In the meantime you can watch the webinar below (the graphics are pretty cool, but it’s mostly audio so you can listen along while at work or commuting).

If you’re ready to add native to your communications strategy, check out Taboola, the world’s leading discovery platform, and Ketchum, one of the world’s oldest and most successful PR firms.

Highlights from MIT’s 3rd Annual Platform Strategy Summit

Highlights from MIT’s 3rd Annual Platform Strategy Summit

Let me get this out of the way upfront: I hate going to conferences.

In my experience, the average conference operates on a 1:3:12 ratio of substance to bullshit to someone trying to sell me something I don’t need for a problem I don’t have. Too many of the conferences I’m invited to are simply sales pitches disguised as “thought leadership” hosted by “luminaries” and “innovators” when what they’re really presenting are recycled ideas hawked by the used car salesmen of the digital world. The rare exceptions that proves the rule are the events hosted by MIT’s Center for Digital Business and their Initiative on the Digital Economy (IDE). This is where leaders from all industries come to discuss business of the future, and where I found myself last month.

On July 10, I attended the Platform Strategy Summit–my second conference on digital business at MIT–and instead of walking away with business cards and sell-sheets I walked away with ideas and questions. To me, those are two of the most valuable takeaways from any interaction.

THE PLATFORM STRATEGY SUMMIT, AN OVERVIEW:

The Summit focused on how platform-centered markets (MIT’s Innovation@Work: Why Platform’s Beat Products Every Time) impact the economics and management of corporate strategy in today’s digital world. Naturally, we talked a lot about Air BnB and UBER as the creme de la creme of platform business models, but we dove deeper into other industries I’d never have guessed had platform players (John Deere comes to mind) and exposed some significant learnings about how platform-based businesses are cannibalizing out-dated product and service based business models.

“Since 2000, 52% of Fortune 500 companies have disappeared.”
– Paul Daugherty, CTO of Accenture

I was shocked to hear Paul Daugherty, CTO of Accenture, announce that 52% of Fortune 500 companies have disappeared since 2000, and that those companies have largely been firms who couldn’t make the transition from product to platform. In fact, in 2013, 14 of the top 30 global brands by market capitalization were platform-oriented companies.

That was two years ago, imagine what the matrix of business models will look like five or even ten years from now.

Hands down, the most charismatic speaker of the day was Luis von Ahn, CEO of Duolingo. He has his own great personal story–from creating the reCAPTCHA to selling the company to Google for an undisclosed amount–and captured everyone’s attention with the story of his new company, Duolingo. The more he spoke about how his company’s app is helping to change the world the more you could hear the opening jingle from people downloading Duolingo on their iPhones.

The Summit was chaired by Geoffrey Parker, Professor of Management Science at Tulane University and Research Fellow at the MIT Initiative for the Digital Economy, along with Marshall Van Alstyne, Professor of Information Systems at Boston University and Research Fellow at the MIT Initiative for the Digital Economy. Along with Strategy Summit co-chair Sangeet Paul Choudary, they are co-authors of Platform Revolution: How Networked Markets Are Transforming the Economy—and How to Make Them Work for You.

“Platforms have begun to absorb what were previously government functions. Some of the areas include monitoring, incentives for good behavior and the exclusion of bad actors.”
– Geoffrey Parker, Tulane University

The rising power of platforms–and how companies like UBER are able to influence market regulations–makes one wonder what the relationship between governments and platforms will be in the future. Platforms are more nimble and adapt lightyears faster than anything in government could ever hope, and part of me wonders if this could be the beginning of a technologically advanced Adam Smith inspired utopia. Without a doubt, platforms are shaping public policy right now and government will have to work closely with the private sector to make sure they adapt to a platform-centered ecosystem.

It’s rumored that next year’s business conference will be centered around how the Internet of Things (IoT) needs a platform perspective to realize its promised benefits.  As Parker said in a recent interview, “much of the effort around IoT has been about developing the technologies needed to link machines to networks. What has mostly been missing, however, is the economic logic that would make companies want to deploy the technologies and the incentives to make developers want to innovate on top of IoT technologies. Next year is likely to be the year that platforms really break into the public’s consciousness.”

TWITTER HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE SUMMIT:

I just saw a 61% increase in conversions using Outbrain’s Vertical Targeting

I just saw a 61% increase in conversions using Outbrain’s Vertical Targeting

I’ve been managing a campaign where one of the KPI’s (Mashable: What is a Key Performance Indicator) is capturing email addresses for a free subscription to a digital magazine. Over the past few months, I’ve been pushing my vendors to give me access to beta products so I can experiment with new tools before they hit the masses and Outbrain was cool enough to let me test out their new(ish) Vertical Targeting product. I experimented to see if their claim of heightened targeting would help me increase email registrations. It did. In a huge way.

What follows is a very unscientific overview of my experiment. I can’t tell you how much I spent, what my CPC’s were, who the client was, or any of those fun details but I can tell you I was really happy with the outcome. So was my client.

My experiment with Vertical Targeting.

I’d been running a campaign with Outbrain targeting high income business decision makers for a long time before testing out Outbrain’s Vertical Targeting product. Performance (clicks and presence on top tier publishers like Mashable, CNN Money, and FOX Business) was solid. We were getting traffic to the website, which was the primary KPI of the campaign, but wanted to get more visitors to sign up for the free email subscription.

I added Vertical Targeting to the campaign for two weeks as a supplemental buy. In layman’s terms: I didn’t reduce the amount of money I was spending on the standard Outbrain product but I added budget so I could supplement the existing campaign with this experiment.

Over the course of those two weeks, I saw a 61% increase in email registrations coming from Outbrains native content recommendation widget compared to the conversions I had been seeing from only using Outbrain’s standard product.

What is Outbrain’s Vertical Targeting?

Outbrain’s Vertical Targeting is similar in concept to Taboola’s White Listing product, where they only display the content on top-tier vertically selected publishers. For example, if I select the Business & Finance vertical my content will only display on publishers websites like VentureBeat, Fortune, Money, and The Street. Other verticals include Sports, Entertainment, Technology, Lifestyle, Fashion & Beauty, Food, Health, Parenting, Entertainment, and Travel. They also have verticals built out for demographics like Male, Female, Millennial, and Affluent individuals.

Outbrain Vertical Targeting

How much does Outbrain’s Vertical Targeting cost?

If you can get it (more on that in a moment) the minimum buy is $5,000 with a minimum CPC of $1.00. I expect this to change in the future, but this is what they’re running with right now. It’s more if you enable their KPI based retargeting (about 10-20% more per click).

Why can’t I find Vertical Targeting in the Outbrain dashboard?

Right now, Vertical Targeting is an agency only offering meaning the average user doesn’t have access to it through the dashboard and you have to activate it through a dedicated account rep. Based on the performance so far, I wouldn’t be surprised if they rolled it out to all users sometime later this year.

Executive Summary: 140 words or less.

It’s worth taking a more scientific approach to this case study, but the initial results were fantastic. Keep in mind that this was a supplemental buy, so we added funds to the existing budget and would have seen an increase in conversions even without the Vertical Targeting. But the increase would have only been a small fraction compared to the actual results. Definitely a tool to keep in your back pocket if you’re lucky enough to have access to it.

 

 

MIT’s First-Ever Conference on Digital Experimentation

MIT’s First-Ever Conference on Digital Experimentation

I just got back from MIT’s first ever Conference on Digital Experimentation (#CODECon14).

As one of the only non-academics in attendance (I was invited as the CEO of Alister & Paine Magazine) I found some of the really academic lectures weren’t all that exciting. But there were a two lectures that really stood out. They captured my attention as an entrepreneur, digital practitioner, and amateur economist.

Those lectures were given by Eric Anderson and Sendhil Mullainathan.

Anderson, who is Chair of the Marketing Department at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management and Director of the Center for Global Marketing Practice, presented an abstract on Transforming Marketing Analytics in Consumer Focused Organizations. This is my wheelhouse, and I loved every second of it. I reached out to Anderson for slides and hopefully I can update this post later with his presentation, since no recap I can give here will really do it justice (but I’ll try anyway).

In his talk, Anderson discussed how opportunities in marketing analytics are moving much faster than most organizations can handle. As a result, firms have become reactive and tactical.  He explored how firms can adopt a more strategic, customer-focused perspective and said that predictive marketing analytics, driven by rapid experimentation, is central to this transformation. I’ve been using rapid digital experimentation with some of my clients already, so I was pretty happy to have him provide some bias confirmation.

The other lecture which really captured my attention was given by Sendhil Mullainathan.

Mullainathan is a Professor of Economics at Harvard University and author of Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives.

He focused his talk on the theory that causation is overstated. As he put it, “To make empirically driven decisions, our methods must reveal causal patterns.  We must know what outcomes each of our choices results in. As a result, experimentation is quickly becoming the tool of choice for decision making. In contrast, it appears that machine learning models because they only produce correlations are problematic for guiding choices. I argue that this is too narrow a perspective on decision-making, that there are many (important) decisions where predictions–with only correlation and no causation–are exactly what are needed for decision making.  Understanding the dual role of prediction and causation in decision making will allow us to better combine machine learning and experimentation.”

As a marketer and amateur econ-nerd, Mullainathan’s lecture really hit a nerve with me. Plus, he’s just a fantastic public speaker. If you have the opportunity to see him speak in person, you absolutely should. He’s funny, energetic, and has all of the entertainment value of a TED Talk but with more substance.